BERLIN, Nov. 18 (JTA) — It was a sight not seen in Berlin’s Beit Zion synagogue in 66 years: This week, for the first time since 1939, services were held in this tiny synagogue that the Nazis failed to destroy. And this time, not one, but more than 25 rabbis were there. It was the first time that the Conference of European Rabbis had held a meeting of its standing committee in Berlin. For many, the scene was emotional. Here, where Nazis had ripped out the bimah, ark and eternal lamp, Moscow Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, wrapped in his prayer shawl, led a service together with Yitzchak Ehrenberg, chief rabbi of Berlin. “It was a mystical experience,” said a woman on the female side of the makeshift mechitzah. Such experiences may occur more frequently as of December 2005, when a new Talmud study center opens in this 95-year-old shul and the apartment building that surrounds it in former East Berlin. “This is the most exciting project I have ever had the privilege to be involved with,” said the CER’s executive director, Rabbi Aba Dunner of London, surveying the roomful of rabbis and guests. The Nazis “thought they got rid of us. And, three days after the anniversary of Kristallnacht, this place is filled with Jews,” he said, referring to the 1938 pogrom that heralded the intensification of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The center — which will have room for up to 100 students — is a project of the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and local Jewish philanthropist Roman Skoblo, a doctor and real-estate dabbler who bought the property about two years ago, after a local grass-roots group campaigned to save it. The project is an outgrowth of the Lauder foundation’s Beit Midrash, which opened four years ago with nine students in a restored former Jewish school nearby. Today there are 28 full time students and another 80 regular attendees. A program for women opened in Frankfurt in 2001. Rabbi Josh Spinner, vice president of the Lauder Foundation and head of the Beit Midrash of Berlin, said the new Talmud center will provide a traditional Jewish education for men and a “rabbi track” for those who choose it. “This is a sign for the growth of Judaism, not only in Berlin,” Skoblo said. “It contributes to the reactivation of something that was almost buried.” In a remarkable development, it now looks very likely that the Central Council of Jews in Germany, which has been loath to support projects outside its umbrella, will help fund the new Talmud center. After a meeting Tuesday with the visiting Orthodox rabbis, the council’s vice president, Charlotte Knobloch, and presidium member Nathan Kalmanowicz said they were confident they could win support from the rest of the board. Kalmanowicz told JTA the board would meet to discuss the issue before the end of November. Such support, Spinner said, “would be a recognition by the Central Council, which is a nondenominational, political body, that the way to solve spiritual problems is by supporting the learning of Torah and of institutions of Torah learning.” The spiritual problems are linked to the concrete: Sixty years ago, the question was how to rebuild basic Jewish infrastructure in post-Holocaust Europe. Today, particularly in Germany, the challenge is to meet the needs of a Jewish community whose membership has tripled since 1989 to 105,000 with the arrival of immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Germany now has the third largest Jewish community in western Europe, after France, with 600,000, and England, with 300,000 — but Germany has fewer than 30 full-time rabbis for more than 80 synagogues. Other problems — lack of affiliation, legal challenges to kashrut and the attraction that many Jews feel to nontraditional Jewish alternatives — were discussed by the rabbis in meetings in Berlin. The CER represents more than 200 traditional rabbis in Eastern and Western Europe. In Berlin, they met with Minister of the Interior Otto Schily; the head of the Christian Democratic Union, Angela Merkel, who may well be her party’s next candidate for chancellor; and with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s chief adviser on religious matters, Heidrun Tempel. They also visited the new Chabad house in Berlin, under the direction of Rabbi Yehuda Teichtal, and an Orthodox synagogue where Ehrenberg officiates. But their main objective, Dunner said, was to urge the Central Council to support the new Talmud center as a potential source of Jewish educators and rabbis in Europe. In meetings Tuesday with the Central Council, Spinner said he found it “absurd that the Central Council on the one hand can evince such concern for these problems, while at the same time not offering any support for people offering the solutions.” The Lauder school in Berlin is a good model on which to build, said George Ban, the Lauder Foundation’s executive vice president. “We are really proud of what we have accomplished in Germany,” Ban told JTA. It goes beyond education: “There are Jewish couples with children who met through this project,” he said. “It is not just a vision, it is not just a miracle; maybe it is the only way to help” give traditional Judaism in Europe a boost. Germany’s post-war community has undergone a gradual metamorphosis. Most of the 20,000 who stayed here after 1945 were Eastern European Holocaust survivors with a traditional background. Today’s community includes Conservative and Progressive congregations. There are a few egalitarian congregations where women as well as men read from the Torah, and there are two rabbinical programs — a Progressive one in Potsdam and a multi-denominational one in Heidelberg. But the number of rabbinical candidates is low. Members of the CER said they recognize that new tactics are needed to meet new challenges. For example, Goldschmidt said, the body plans to open an office in Brussels within the next six months to better advocate on religious matters, such as schechitah, within the European Union. It was clear, however, that the rabbis were much more comfortable with teaching than with lobbying. At the Lauder Beit Midrash, where they held most of their private meetings, the rabbis took a break to learn with the students. One evening, they sat together at tables in a room that doubles as classroom and sanctuary, discussing, pointing fingers in the air, shrugging their shoulders, resting their chins on their hands, frowning and laughing. Later, standing in the ruins of the one-room Beit Zion synagogue, Rabbi Moshe Rose was beaming. “It was worth coming just for that experience,” said Rose, who preceded Dunner as CER executive director. “The students are like sponges,” said Rose, who was born in Birmingham, England and has lived since 1973 in Jerusalem. Rabbi Jacky Dreyfus of Colmar, France, said he had discussed Talmudic tractates on marriage with a student from Hamburg. “Berlin in the past was a very bad town for Jews,” Dreyfus said. “And now we see we are winners. To win, you simply need to be.” Later that evening, standing where the bimah had been in Beit Zion, Rabbi Chanoch Ehrentreu of London recalled a terrible scene from his childhood in Frankfurt. Ehrentreu is dean of the Lauder Beit Midrash in Berlin and head of the Beth Din of London. “I remember vividly that the Germans took the Sifrei Torah,” or Torah scrolls, “from the Beis Hamidrash,” or study house, “and set them alight,” Ehrentreu told the assembled rabbis and guests. “I remember my father saying, ‘You can burn the parchment, but the spirit of the Torah survives.’ “
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Toby Axelrod is JTA's correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee's Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week. She has won numerous awards from the New York Press Association and the American Jewish Press Association. She has published books on Holocaust history for teen-agers.